GE2015: Bringing broadband up to speed

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One of the many issues political parties in the UK have focused on in the run up to the 7th May election is the topic of superfast broadband. Both the Conservative and Labour parties included significant references to this topic in their respective manifestos. Labour made a commitment to affordable ‘high speed’ broadband for all by the end of the next parliament, with the Conservative Party committing to ensuring that 95% of the country will have access to ‘superfast’ broadband by the end of 2017.

Regardless of your views on manifesto promises, it’s good to see that connectivity and its importance to the UK economy is being recognised and given prominent placing in the discussion.

We increasingly view broadband as a utility, placing it alongside water and power as essential components for homes and business. It’s difficult to imagine a house in the UK not having water, and it’s also increasingly difficult to imagine someone not having access to broadband.

As we have begun to view broadband with increasing important to our day to day life it has also shot up the political agenda, and importantly discussion has begun to shift to speed as well as coverage. This is due to all sides recognising that while coverage is required, the speed of the service is crucial to ensuring competitiveness in a global marketplace. Most areas of the UK have some form of access to broadband (those without continue to campaign for it) but speed is now becoming a political issue, with low speeds damaging economic growth and hindering innovation, making it more difficult for the UK to compete in a global market.

If you compare the UK internationally, the results make for interesting reading with the UK coming in at number 18 for peak connection speed with 10.9Mbps . As the UK is the world’s sixth largest economy, this is not particularly positive and is further hampered when you consider that the leader, South Korea, has double the UK’s average peak connection with 22.2Mbps. But how and why do the numbers really impact UK business?

Perhaps the best analogy for understanding the impact on the economy is related to the colocation industry. If a data centre has a set of capabilities that your business is looking for, be it related to a specific carrier or ISP, then you are likely to choose it over a data centre that doesn’t offer the same capabilities. The same applies for businesses across the country, if an area doesn’t have the capabilities you need in the form of high speed internet, you will move your company to another region.

Those areas with better performance will gain their own momentum as companies in related industries will start to create communities of interest around industries like media or tech. This is occurring around Tech City in London, but recent polling of the Tech London Advocates group revealed that 48% of members felt that slow broadband speeds were affecting London’s reputation for business.

In improving broadband speeds, the UK would be both raising and levelling the playing field across the country, enabling businesses to operate from anywhere and not just areas with improved connectivity.

How can we address the issue?
The UK’s broadband network has become an intensely political topic. Numerous stakeholders have a say on how improvements should be implemented with multiple opinions on who should pay. What’s very clear is that more collaboration is required if there are to be the improvements required that will allow the UK to compete with the likes of South Korea. Government, local authorities and service providers need to collaborate closely to deliver a national broadband strategy that will drive up overall standards.

Announcements like the one from Virgin Media in February regarding the expansion of its fibre optic broadband offering from 13 million to 17 million homes (at a cost of £3bn) are most encouraging but we also require a more joined up approach to address the problem at a national level. By approaching the problem in a more collaborative and collective manner, broadband speeds will improve and help to drive further growth in the economy. There would be benefits for government services, as it becomes more feasible for the implementation of innovations like smart cities that will improve efficiency and services simultaneously.

Improving UK broadband will not occur overnight, but it is a challenge that will require time and investment to resolve. The key component to this will be all stakeholders working collaboratively to address the problem, recognising that only by doing so will the challenges be tackled. The overall benefits to the UK will be numerous, and by making it easier to work and do business anywhere in the UK through the availability of superfast broadband, the economy will thrive.